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Blog S1E2 - Genius Genes: Unlocking Genetic Diversity

Breed, Sow, Grow: Adventures and Challenges in Plant Breeding

Welcome back to the exciting world of plant breeding, where each day brings new challenges and discoveries! In our previous adventure, we explored the complex traits that make our crop into 'superheroes'. This time we are diving into the fascinating world of genetic diversity.

What is Genetic Diversity?

Imagine a vast library, each book containing unique stories. In the world of plants, each plant represents a unique book. Within each book (genome), there are sentences (genes) that carry specific instructions shaping the characteristics of that plant.

Genetic diversity is akin to having a wide array of books covering various subjects. Each book (plant genome) tells a different story, holds unique information, and contributes to the overall richness of the collection. Just as libraries benefit from a diverse selection of books, our plant populations thrive when they have a wide genetic pool.

If all libraries housed the exact same books, we would miss out on many topics and perspectives. Similarly, in the plant world, if every plant population had identical genomes, we would lose the potential for resilience and adaptability to different environments or challenges, as sometimes 'hidden' gems have to be found in landraces and wild relatives. Genetic diversity, then, is our botanical library's treasure trove.

The Need for Genetic Diversity

Why is genetic diversity so crucial? In our library analogy, we might say: If all the books were identical, we would miss out on the world’s richness and knowledge. In plant breeding, a lack of genetic diversity can even make them vulnerable. Imagine a field of crops susceptible to a disease, like yellow rust, because they share the same genes—it is a disaster waiting to happen. Genetic diversity is vital in many ways:

1. Adaptation: Different genes provide the ability to adapt to various environments and challenges. They are the resources plants use to survive and thrive.

2. Resilience: Genetic diversity helps crops withstand pests, diseases, and unpredictable weather conditions.

3. Complex traits: Remember those complex traits we discussed in the previous blogpost? Genetic diversity is the key to unlocking and improving them.

Genetic Diversity and Selection Gain

Selection gain is our way of measuring progress in plant breeding - like an indicator of how well our libraries are stocked. The more diverse the books in our library, the better the chances of satisfying most visitors and needs. In plant breeding, when we (re-)introduce genetic diversity, we are essentially expanding our genome library. This allows us to select for plants with a broader range of desirable traits and to improve our crops faster. For example, when breeding for plants that need to thrive under drought conditions yet still produce more yield than before, breeders introduce plant genomes that are used to growing in such environments to their breeding population. This makes it easier, faster, and more efficient to select the right varieties, and to improve the selection gain.

Making Genetic Diversity Accessible

Unpacking genetic diversity and making it accessible to all crops is a huge task, but we have some brilliant tools and strategies at our disposal:

  • Exploring wild relatives: Nature's own library contains wild relatives (and landraces) of our cultivated crops. These plants often possess unique and valuable genes. By tapping into their genetic diversity, we can unlock new traits and resilience.
  • Global collaboration and sharing: Plant breeders around the world collaborate and share germplasm, the genetic material of plants. It is like a global book exchange, ensuring that everyone has access to diverse genetic resources.
  • Conservation of genetic diversity: Global efforts in gene banks preserve diverse crop genetics, acting as seed vaults to protect valuable resources for future agricultural resilience. 
  • Modern genetic technologies: Cutting-edge technologies, such as DNA sequencing, help us decode the genetic information hidden within each plant.
  • Farmer engagement: Involving farmers in the breeding process ensures that their local knowledge and preferences are considered. It is like getting book recommendations from avid readers who know the local stories best.

Genetic diversity is the beating heart of successful plant breeding programs. As we navigate the challenges and adventures in this genetic diversity landscape, we're not only securing our agricultural future but also preserving the incredible variety of flavors and colors that make our world so vibrant. Every bite of a delicious fruit or vegetable is a testament to the genius genes within our plant kingdom.

Stay tuned for our next episode, "Phenomenal Phenotyping: The Science of Collecting Data"!

If you missed the previous episode of our blog, read it here:
S1E1 - Breeding Brilliance: Unveiling the Crop Superheroes


Do you want to know how Computomics can support plant breeding for the future?
Check out our Climate-Smart Breeding page or contact us!

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